The Silenc/ing of Roger Haight, SJ

The MuniCambridge, MA. Just after Christmas I splurged on-line, searching out at used book sites the seven volumes of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, his wonderful and extensive reflection on the aesthetic element in our theological and spiritual knowledge, our apprehension of the beautiful in our encounter with God. Since I had previously collected the five volumes of the Theo-drama and the three volumes of the Theo-logic (all in English, I confess), I now have the entirety of this grand work. I love pulling a volume off the shelf and reading what von Balthasar says about one of the Christian tradition’s great monastic or lay writers, mystics or theologians. I hope this interest of mine is not surprising. I am, as you will know by now if you have reading me at this site over the past year and more, a comparative theologian, and I spend a good part of my time studying classical Hindu literature. To some, surely, this means that my tastes are liberal. But in fact, my study of India has only deepened my respect for our classical tradition, and so too for solid, serious, deep theologians such as von Balthasar among the Catholics, and Karl Barth among the Protestants.
     I mention this because I have felt the need, for weeks now, to say something about the recent Vatican decision to bar Roger Haight, SJ from teaching and writing. I am sure you know about the case against his Jesus Symbol of God and the Notification several years back. Since then Fr Haight, moved from teaching at the (then) Weston Jesuit School of Theology, has continued his writing, and also taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a Protestant seminary. But now, he is barred from further theological writing and from teaching, even at Union. The reason, it seems, is that he is not willing to recant and disown what he wrote in Jesus Symbol of God.
     Now, as I have just said, it is von Balthasar I love to read, and he is the one I find inspiring to me in my interreligious, comparative theology. While I admire the solidity and clarity of Fr Haight’s writing, Jesus Symbol of God but also his other works too, it is not the kind of theology that helps me very much in the work I do. I also recall that when Fr Haight’s book came out, it quickly became a hot topic in theology, and the early reviews of it were quite varied, some positive, and some quite critical of this or that aspect of the book. I recall hearing Fr Haight speak about reactions to the book at the Catholic Theological Society annual meeting one year. Even at that point, there were some 25 or 30 reviews of it (the author in me dies of envy), and many of them engaged in the academic delight and duty of giving Fr Haight a hard time. I have taught the chapter of it on world religions in my classes, first at Boston College, and now at Harvard, and while there are things I admire greatly in the chapter, both my students and I found cause to quarrel with the book and the way in which Fr Haight explains the relation of Christ, Christianity, and the world religions.
     I think the mixed reaction to the book was a fine thing, and am fairly sure that Fr Haight himself had no problem with it. Such are the ups and downs of academe, and it is through this critical exchange, sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh, that our work gets done. < br />     And so I was disappointed years ago by the investigation of the book and its author, by his dismissal from the seminary faculty, by the Notification, and now by this silencing. Even though I do not agree with all that Fr Haight wrote, I thought the academic give and take was the best way to sift out the good and the bad, what would endure and what would be forgotten, in Jesus Symbol of God. The Notification was quite clear; the issues were known and widely discussed. I had hoped that with this clarity we had all moved on, Fr Haight to other writings, and the rest of us to our own ways of reflecting on Christ today, wiser by this whole experience. But silencing?
     Silencing is a terrible, awesome thing. In Hinduism, for millennia it has been a way of spiritual discipline, a hard practice by which a sage (muni) goes down inside herself or himself and finds still deeper and more lasting insights into reality, Reality. Such sages, by their austere penance of silence, were known to build up a terrible inner heat  — tapas — which could erupt at the most unpredictable moment. Perhaps Fr Haight, who has taken the silencing with seeming equanimity, will likewise accumulate tapas for all of us. Global warming, indeed.
     But on the larger scale, there are two things I really want to say. First, silence is one thing, being-silenced another. It is true that I have no inside information on the Vatican, no connections, no influence, and cannot pretend to speak as an expert on Vatican matters, and it is not my place to imagine telling Rome what to do. But it does seem to me counterproductive to have silenced Fr Haight at this point, all the more drawing attention to him and his work. He shall be remembered forever, in theological circles, for this event too. Perhaps there are places in the Church where the silencing will produce a desired caution and even fear in theologians, but here in the United States, my guess is that it is mainly the Vatican that comes off looking bad; such is our media , and how we instinctively take sides with the underdog in disputes like this. Correct me if I am wrong in guessing this outcome. It would have been better, wise, kinder, more productive, more charitable, to let Fr Haight write what he wants, and teach at Union, letting the rest of us, who do really care about Jesus and his meaning for us, judge whether he is to be in our bibliographies and on our reading lists or not. Silencing simply interrupts and delays the necessarily slow process of making up our minds on his writing; there is simply no way to substitute for the learning each of us must do, sooner or later.
     Second, and although, again, I really do love reading von Balthasar and will go back to reading him and (for a course) the Hindu theologian Ramanuja (about whom I wrote in Advent) once I am finished writing this blog, I am all the more and endlessly edified by Roger as intellectual, writer, teacher, Jesuit. He wrote what he thought, in simple and austere honesty, working out his ideas step by step. He wrote, as he saw it, for the Church and for his students. It is, I am sure (though guessing), impossible in his eyes to take it back, to recant, to change what he wrote. And so, without ‘going public’ with denunciations to the press or media campaigns or inflammatory websites, etc., Roger has simply accepted this austerity of silence. As if to say, without saying, something like this: “I accept the decision of the Vatican, I will be silent. I cannot unwrite what I wrote or unthink what I thought, but neither is it my place to change the rules so late in the game. I stand by my book, and I will not speak.” In this way, Roger, whose ideas I share only somewhat, is all the more one of my intellectual heroes. We need to think and write honestly, as if everything is at stake, no matter what the cost. Roger’s doing this, and taking all this so seriously (as has the Vatican, to be sure), upgrades the value of what all theologians do, and reminds us of what is at stake in our daily thinking, writing, praying, teaching. It is important enough to fight about, and to suffer for.
     I do hope the silencing ends soon, even as Roger’s tapas, the fruit of his silence, sets us all ablaze. But for now, what he does not say has become the most eloquent way for him to keep teaching us.

     Addendum: Although I always read your comments (thanks for them!) I respond to neither the positive nor the negative, since such back-and-forth seems not to be part of this genre. But this time I recommend that readers look at Fr. Imbelli’s suggested link, and also at Ms Disco’s helpful update on Fr Haight’s situation, with reference in turn to Prof Paul Lakeland’s essay in Commonweal. (And while I am at it: in his brief comment, Mr Austin asks about the criticisms against Fr Haight’s book; with such in mind, I had already included the link to the Notification, which amply sets forth the concerns.)

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Rhonda Sarrazin
5 years 6 months ago
Fr. Clooney,
I appreciated very much your comments about Roger Haight.  The fact that he has been silenced just ensures that everyone is going to go out and read his books. I did and I found that his research regarding the pluralist nature of  early church governance compelling!!  We did start out that way.  I think it is a myth that all young Catholics hear about Jesus giving the keys of the "One true church" to Peter, is a myth to prop up the Authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  The power of the Bishop of Rome developed over a period of time. After reading his comments on the divinity of Chirist, I thought that he did believe in the divinity Christ but how he thinks about divinity may be different. Also, when theologians talk about symbol and metaphor it is in a different context than say an English major would think about it.  I found myself, very challenged by what Fr. Haight wrote as it gave me a lot to think about, but like Fr. Clooney, I'm not sure I agree with everything but that's Ok. I was delighted to find out that Roger Haight is a scholar in residence at Union Theological Seminary as I will be attending that institution in the fall.  Carolyn , I admire your courgage staying in the church. I left and became an Episcopalian and my husband is clergy.  I just couldn't take it any more.  To the average pew sitter, although I am not Roman Catholic anymore, I recieved an outstanding education in HIgh School by the Daughter's of Charity and a very fine education by the Jesuits at Loyola University in New Orleans.  Both of these communities taught us that we were responisible for our faith and for educating  ourselves about our faith.  Perhaps it is time you got off your pew, did a little reading, and thought about these things in a critical and thoughtful manner.  And to the person who attended the lecture by Fr. Haight at St. Louis University, I agree with Fr. Haight, your response is arrogant.
8 years 10 months ago
Not being a theologian but a mere pew-sitter perhaps disqualifies me from commenting. But it is late and your article is well-written and I am first in line. As a mere pew-sitter, I am most concerned to know what is true. The truth will set me free, interesting and original ideas will not. How true are Fr Haight's propositions? Is it really necessary to explore all the many ways in which one can be wrong in order to determine that what we have right now is right? My wife is Protestant and through her I have come to a deep respect for what is good in the Protestant tradition, and there is much good. But I have also come to a deep appreciation of the disaster caused by letting theologians get control of the church. Protestantism started as a dispute among theologians and that is where it remains. I feel sorry for your friend Fr. Haight (and you too). I have no clue as to whether he is right, wrong or indifferent. I likely will never know. But I do feel safer for the Church having taken seriously its obligation to preserve the deposit of faith.
8 years 10 months ago
"America's" readers and staff might want to view the perspective of the very well-informed Catholic writer and journalist, Sandro Magister: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/213869?eng=y"
8 years 10 months ago
This http://www.ignatius.com/ViewProduct.aspx?SID=1&amp;Product_ID=3239 would be a book for you. ;-)
8 years 10 months ago
During my freshman year at Saint Louis University, Fr. Haight came to speak -- I believe it was on Jesus: Symbol of God. A great deal of his lecture was spent trying to convince the audience that the Catholic Church has no claim to any primacy among various Christian communities. The talk troubled me, as I was, at the time, beginning to become excited about my Catholic faith. Fr. Haight seemed to suggest that Catholicism was just one path among many. After the talk, I walked up to him to share my concerns. Eight years later, I don't now recall my specific question. I believe it was something along the lines of, ''Based upon your talk, haven't you minimized the importance of being Catholic or the truth claims of the Church? Isn't it a claim of Catholicism that it possesses the fullness of truth in a way that no other denominations share?'' I cannot forget his answer. In exasperated tones, he said, ''Isn't that arrogant?'' I walked away that night wondering just why Fr. Haight had become a priest. Perhaps his views about the authority of the Church had changed over time. But why share his doubts about the primacy of the Church with a group of university students at a Catholic University? What incentive did he given anyone in the room to continue being Catholic, other than from a subjective preference? You can imagine the spiritual and intellectual discord sown by hearing such words from a priest. Fr. Clooney, you say that priests (or theologians) ''need to think and write honestly, as if everything is at stake, no matter what the cost.'' Even at the cost of turning people away from Catholicism? Is that really the appropriate action for a priest, for someone who by his life choice and public dress (in theory, at least) has apparently given his sanction to the teachings of Catholicism and to the authority of the Church? (PS: the software here won't let me make paragraphs -- sorry for the lack of any.)
8 years 10 months ago
The monastic tradition often describes prayer in terms of silence. This tradition teaches us that when too much is happening at the level of consciousness and feelings, we can easily be drawn away from the dense silence of God. The monastic tradition tells us that interior silence accompanies a deepening experience of God's presence. At times the journey will seem hostile. Honesty, resolve, and curiosity help us find the paths towards peace and silence. Michael 'The silence into which we are called is not blankness. Progressively it can seem hostile. Just as the desert was traditionally seen not as a spot for a quiet retreat, but a howling wilderness in which demons lived, so God call us not to rest but to greater fidelity to truth. This closer attachment to ultimate reality is not possible unless we learn to abandon all that is unreal, untrue and not authentic in our lives. There is a hard-edge quality about the demands of this moment that does not yield to our usual tactics of evasion. We cannot satisfy them by rewriting our press releases, telling our story in a different way, highlighting different aspects of our past to accommodate new expectations...' ~ Michael Casey, OCSO, 'Toward God'
8 years 10 months ago
Fr. Clooney, Thank you for the thoughtful essay on the matter of Fr. Haight and the CDF. Where, I believe, we ought to tread carefully is in realizing that the writings in question spring from the pen (or keyboard) of Fr. Haight, and not Mr. Haight. Therefore there are entirely new and more important additional levels of responsibility. As a priest, an alter Christus, Fr. ____'s writings would be given infinitely more weight than those of a layman, particularly by the faithful. It strains credulity to believe a priest would not be aware of that. With that added weight, comes additional responsibility: to not present inaccurately the doctrine of the Church. As an author, a priest or religious carries out -- desired or not, deserved or not -- an ambassadorial function. This function, hinging crucially on witnessing to the Truth, cannot be divorced from one's writings. Therefore, the matter pertaining to Fr. Haight is infinitely more than an issue relating to the academy. The Church has a clear and present obligation to preserve the deposit of faith and to safeguard same. Thus, someone who will not present that deposit of faith accurately, gravely harms the deposit of faith, confusing the laity, etc. As a consequence, that person is not to present his writings under the aegis of the Church, as would inevitably be the case with a priest, religious, bishop, etc. In sum, Fr. Haight has been instructed to not teach on matters of theology if he cannot teach them free of error, as there is every reason to believe those whom he will teach will be left with the impression that he is proposing ideas with the fullness of Church authority undergirding his assertions. AMDG, -J.
8 years 10 months ago
You write very well and convincing about this silencing of Roger Haight, SJ about whom or what he wrote I know naught but suppose it is some important if esoteric point in error that could have effects probably centuries from now. However, surely you would agree to silence a Catholic theologian who is in gross error about more practical matters. We can all think of some cases.
8 years 10 months ago
Any hope of learning from you what the points were which troubled the Vatican?
8 years 10 months ago
I tend to agree with Mr. Emerson's remarks in that what troubles me is not the theological writings of Fr. Haight, which I disagree with to a great extent, but why he bothers to remain a Priest if he does not believe in the divinity of Jesus. If Jesus is not divine then the Crucifixion is simply martyrdom, not salvation. What separates Priests from the rest of us is the bloodless reenactment of this in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but if Jesus is not divine, why celebrate Mass at all? There would literally be no point to the entire Christian religion, Catholic or otherwise. Haight should be free to say what he feels, and indeed if he truly believes what he does, he should - however aside from the collegiality of the Society of Jesus, I fail to see why he bothers being silenced as an act of obedience to a church that he no longer accepts as a source of truth.
8 years 10 months ago
On the subject of symbol, a friend of mine who is a diocesan hermit believes it is inappropriate for theologians to criticize something as 'merely a symbol.' She believes when people do this they often completely misunderstand the nature of symbol or its relationship to the mediation of that which it symbolizes. Truth is mediated to us in many ways, not the least through symbol. She believes that contemplatives are concerned with truth, the truth which is God, the truth which comes from God, the truth reflected in all that glorifies him, etc. More, they are concerned not so much with grasping truth as being grasped by it ---- the most perfect form of knowing. Symbol can bring to articulation that which what would often remain inarticulate and unappreciated. It can allow truth to take hold of us and shake us with its power ---even in partial and fragmentary ways.
8 years 9 months ago
Paul Lakeland’s article clarifies the issues wonderfully: ''Not So Heterodox: In Defense of Roger Haight'' (Commonweal 1-26-07) http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/print_format.php?id_article=1830 I had read earlier that Haight might not be able to continue at Union Theological, where he is currently teaching. I discovered a notice on the Sandro Magister website Bob Imbelli mentions that Haight has been appointed scholar in residence at Union as of June 2009. I am relieved for him. Elsewhere I have quoted Ann Belford Ulanov, professor of psychiatry and religion at Union, and to think of her and Haight as colleagues is a delight. She and her husband, Barry, now deceased, wrote classics on prayer, and the intersection of psyche and soul. Ann is also a noted Jungian analyst, no doubt well versed in the multiple meanings of “symbol” that Michael Miller so ably cites above. Regarding pluralism, Fr. Thomas Keating (Centering Prayer) writes in “The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation” p. 21 that “In the coming millennium, religious leaders and spiritual teachers might consider as their primary responsibility not so much to convert new constituents or new followers to a particular form of meditation, but to create communion – harmony, understanding, and respect for everyone in the human family, especially the members of other religions. In the world that lies ahead, religious pluralism is going to penetrate all cultures. How we live together with different points of view is going to become more and more important. I don’t know whether we can make progress in such a project without a contemplative practice that alerts us to our own biases, prejudices, and self-centered programs for happiness, especially when they trample on other people’s rights and needs.” Maybe contemplative and monastic traditions can light a path here somehow, with Jungian over or undertones. Anyway, the solution to controversial speech is more speech, not silencing.
8 years 9 months ago
''If not you, then who? And if not now, then when?'' That's my response to Fr. Clooney's statement that ''it is not [his] place to imagine telling Rome what to do.'' This is precisely what we must imagine doing. If the clergy won't, then the laity must. As a woman Catholic pew-sitter, I have been silenced by this pope and the one before him. There are things close to my heart and close to the heart of Catholicism that I am forbidden to speak or even believe. This is why, as an act of conscience, I am no longer able to contribute financially to my parish and cathedral. I cannot support this business of silencing, whether of theologians or women or any other category of Catholic including ''cafeteria.'' However, I am grateful to the Vatican for bringing Fr. Haight to my attention and prompting me to begin studying his writings. ''All things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose.''
8 years 9 months ago
Let us examine the CDF's points on Fr. Haight's writings: "It undercuts the doctrine that Christ existed as the divine Word of God prior to his incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth." An article of faith going back to at least the Book of John. It cannot be compromised. "The book presents Jesus as a human being who “symbolized” or “mediated” the saving presence of God, as opposed to being truly divine and truly human. " If Jesus was not God, then the whole point of the religion is a farce, that point being that God became man, that his sufferings brought about our salvation, his death joins ours deaths and his resurrection allows us to join in eternal life (whatever that is - I was mediating today on what an eternal now must be like - it is impossible for a temporal being to get their minds around).
8 years 9 months ago
...concluding... "Haight holds that Jesus is “normative” for Christians but not “constitutive” for followers of other religions, and that it is not necessary to believe that God saves only through Jesus. Such arguments, the notification asserted, contradict the church’s traditional faith in Christ as the lone and universal savior." To have salvation through Jesus death in the way I described above, one must believe in it. Salvation and justification are two very different things. Salvation gets us out of our sinful state - out of our hopeless human condition. Being saved is the beginning, not the end. The obligations of Christian charity imposed in Matthew 25 are all the more real for those who have been saved. Avoiding the self-destruction of sin through right action is merely self-preservation. Holiness comes from doing the work of charity. One need not be saved to store up treasure in heaven by doing works of mercy.
8 years 9 months ago
continued.. "Haight suggests that “to affirm … that Jesus accepted to suffer punishment for our sins, or to die to satisfy the justice of God, does not make sense in the world of today.” That position, the congregation held, is unacceptable." Here I disagree with the CDF. Haight may be right. Many of us do not believe that God demands punishment. However, this does not mean that the sufferings, death and resurrection of Jesus are not necessary for our salvation. They absolutetly are. The sufferings of Jesus are necessary for the divinity to experience our humanity - our apartness from God. That is the only way we can approach God through Jesus. Jesus had to authentically feel the abandonment of our sinful condition on the cross (not just mouth prophetic verses) when he called out to God from the cross stating "My God, My God, Why Have Thou Foresaken me." After he said this, he said, "I thirst" and John relates He sipped the wine. Now, either He lied when he said he would not drink of the fruit of the vine (in which case Christianity is a farce) or he drank the wine to call attention to the fact that our salvation came from his abandonment, not his death, and that our participation in the Eucharist affirms both His abandonment and the sign of our salvation by drinking His Most Precious Blood. Of course, for this to make any sense, Jesus must be God.

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